A grand jury has charged state Sen. Don Balfour with illegally claiming legislative expense pay, according to an indictment released Friday.
He previously agreed to pay a $5,000 fine issued by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting pay for in-state work and travel on days when he was outside the state. Lawmakers can only claim their legislative expense pay if they are conducting official business inside Georgia. They can claim expenses while traveling outside Georgia if they are part of an official delegation approved in advance.
Balfour, R-Snellville, did not immediately return a call seeking comment. The Fulton County grand jury handed down its indictment Tuesday. His attorney, Patrick McDonough, said Friday that Balfour may have unwittingly filed flawed expense account reports but he didn’t intentionally misappropriate state funds.
"I inadvertently made some mistakes," Balfour told reporters last year, shortly before agreeing to pay the fine and reimbursing the state nearly $1,200.
Balfour's case was particularly troubling since he previously served as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which was supposed to set up a panel to scrutinize the expenses filed by Senate lawmakers. Georgia's lawmakers face little scrutiny and few standards when claiming upwards of $1 million annually in expense pay under a system that relies heavily on their honesty.
He faces 16 counts of making a false certificate, one count of theft by taking and one count of false statement and writing, all felony charges. The false certificate charge is punishable by one to five years in prison and a fine of up to $1,000. Theft by taking carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. False statement and writing is punished by one to five years in prison and a fine of up to $1,000.
The Senate Ethics Committee, which examined Balfour's expenses, identified 18 days where the lawmaker improperly filed for pay or expenses. For example, Balfour claimed flat-rate payments and mileage for traveling from his home in Snellville to Atlanta on Aug. 4-5, 2011. However, Georgia Power lobbyist Glennis Barnes paid $50 so Balfour could go on a tour in New Orleans on Aug. 5, according to lobbying records.
Balfour also claimed pay and round trip commuting expenses from his home to Atlanta on Aug. 8-12, 2011. But lobbyist reports show Balfour was actually attending a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Texas for several of those days. On Aug. 9, 2011, Georgia Municipal Association lobbyist Tom Gehl bought Balfour salad and lasagna at a San Antonio restaurant. The following day, Georgia Chemistry Council lobbyist Rudy Underwood reported buying Balfour lunch at the NCSL conference.
Gov. Nathan Deal will now appoint a three-person panel to determine if Balfour should be suspended from the Senate.
Brian Robinson is Gov. Deal’s spokesman. On Friday, he said the panel would recommend suspension if it decided the charges relate directly to Balfour’s duties as a state Senator.
“If he’s suspended, that means he cannot engage in official duties," He said. "He can’t go to committee meetings, he cannot call a state agency on behalf of a constituent, he can’t vote when they’re in session. But the seat doesn’t become open. There’s no special election.”
Deal has had to appoint two other such panels of late: one for State Legislator Tyrone Brooks of Atlanta and another for DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis. The panels opted to suspend Ellis but not Brooks.
Contributors: Jeanne Bonner